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I think designing for accessibility is easy to ignore for the most part and generally nobody will think twice. My experience is that accessibility is largely a client mandate, if they are a large enough corporation then it's fairly concrete that you have to keep accessibility standards in mind as you design yet I've noticed that standards are rarely checked after the fact and many issues go unnoticed.
However, trying to adhere to accessibility standards is quite difficult. If you have an eye for aesthetics, subtlety is probably a large part of how you design and even hitting the first tier AA contrast rules means fine levels of subtlety are almost impossible to achieve. There are a lot of rules to hit and your visuals need to have a great deal of contrast. You may find that many of the strategies you currently use to design with just won't make the grade and the end results can basically look kind of ugly.
I feel that if the goal is to design an award-winning experience while trying to adhere to AA contrast standards, you have your work cut out for you. I don't think judges are going to value accessibility over aesthetics, but if you have a great design that also takes into account accessibility then it certainly isn't going to hurt. I think other strategies of ensuring accessibility such as correctly labeling form fields and making sure all of your markup is geared for screen-reading makes more sense to align to than possibly hampering your design just to aid a small portion of your visitors.
if they are a large enough corporation then it's fairly concrete that you have to keep accessibility standards in mind
From my experience, it are mostly (semi) government organisations that are more geared towards accessibility.
I feel that if the goal is to design an award-winning experience while trying to adhere to AA contrast standards, you have your work cut out for you.
But I don't think it's impossible with current techniques; adding captions or descriptions to videos is supported with html5, providing alternatives to images (although things like 'longdesc' isn't supported).
Your point about contrast/subtlety is an interesting one and it might pose another question; do we need some sort of media-query that offers a high-contrast version of the site? This suggests we might
Yes, government would definitely be at the top of the list for mandated accessibility, but a lot of big companies consult their legal teams on many things and it can lead to some pretty head-scratching requests.
As for a high contrast version, it seems like a lot of wasted effort trying to make something for everyone. There has got to be a browser extension out there that will override CSS and display an AA accessible version anyways. Seriously, just try and start designing with AA contrast in mind, you're likely going to be making more than a few compromises that you'd rather not. Especially true if you have concrete brand colors already in play.
I would only aim for visual accessibility if I knew the majority of users had vision impairment and the site was specifically focused on providing a service to those types of individuals. My opinion is that if your eyesight is so poor that you can't read even reasonable contrast levels you probably aren't going to complain that people aren't designing things properly because you would/should be using a screen reader.
Where the design community meets.
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